Taiwan-based writer-director Edward Yang’s first unequivocal international success arrives in town laden with awards, glowing reviews, top-10 mentions and all the attendant expectations aroused by an obviously must-see movie. Pretty good for a film with the unpromising premise of being a three-hour-long contemporary family drama (not even a saga) with an intricate and slowly simmering soap opera plot.

The obvious predecessor here is the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, who perfected the film of incremental familial discontent (Tokyo Story, 1953, being an excellent example). Yang isn’t quite the rigorous stylist that Ozu was, but he does have a similarly subtle and, at times, meditative approach. But before I praise his style, a few dissenting points should be made.

As the movie progressed, I began to suspect that it must have been some sort of movie-buff machismo which had moved many reviewers to mention that the length of Yi Yi was not an issue, that its three hours fairly zip by. To me, the three hours seemed more like five, with very little zipping involved. This is far from being a fatal flaw — much worthy art requires a certain amount of figurative loin-girding — but I think it’s only fair to warn the viewer that there are times, particularly during the film’s last hour, when things come to a protracted standstill. Much like a performance of Tristan und Isolde, it’s best to come well-rested and alert.

My other curmudgeonly point is that it may take you about an hour to figure out who is who and exactly how they are related to each other. I don’t think it’s an accident that the press kit for the film includes a schematic family tree of the principals (reviewers are routinely given things like this to help foist the impression on the public that we have remarkable powers of memory). The main characters are NJ, a 45-year-old husband and father whose moral mettle is tested after he encounters an old flame; his 40-year-old wife Min-Min, who feels that her life is empty and who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Min-Min’s brother, A-Di, an amiable screw-up; and NJ and Min-Min’s children: Ting-Ting, the teenage daughter, and Yang-Yang, the precocious 8-year-old son.

The clan’s matriarch, Min-Min and A-Di’s mother, spends most of the film in a coma, allowing for several moving monologues as various family members unburden themselves to her safely unhearing ears. Each of the principals has dealings and problems outside the family, leading to an Altman-esque welter of characters and an agreeably episodic narrative.

The focus remains realistic, a traditional domestic drama but (literally) deepened by Yang’s spatial sense. Where Ozu’s signature shot suggests an observer sitting at the family meal, Yang’s is the long shot with the characters either encompassed in communal compositions or reduced by the architecture of their surroundings. They’re living in a modern and decidedly uncozy world.

Aside from a compelling visual sense, Yang’s great strength is his avoidance of sentimentality, even if the longueurs of Act 3 suggest an excess of melancholy (though one viewer’s restlessness will be another’s happy wallow). He even manages to make young son Yang-Yang a dispenser of offhand, pint-sized wisdom without becoming insufferably cute.

Yi Yi may be overextended, but it’s never less than sincere, and its manipulations of the viewer’s emotions are done with intelligence and restraint.

Showing exclusively as the Detroit Film Theatre’s opening selection of its Winter-Spring 2001 season (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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